Eating the Past

The Moral Economy of Food

Food crises have dominated UK headlines in recent months, raising questions about future food security, defined as ‘when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.’ Events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have served to highlight more structural problems within our food systems, as well as to focus attention on longer-term concerns over climate change and population growth.

Today’s discourse is framed around the issue of inflation and the extent to which it is the result of unfortunate market conditions or can in part be explained by greed and opportunism. In such discussions, the culprits are seen as the middlemen, suppliers and retailers who have monopolised the markets and are seeing record profits, while the victims are the producers and consumers whose everyday costs are rising. Particular emphasis is placed on the poorest in society, whose plight is reflected in the growing number of UK food banks. As such, there have been growing calls for government intervention to protect against inflation and implement windfall taxes, and for increased charitable efforts to protect the most vulnerable.

Whilst these problems are presented in the media as new struggles facing the modern age, political ideas about food security have a long history in England. Current debate over intervention versus free market price setting reflects arguments made in E.P. Thompson’s famous 1971 article ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, in which he presented a clash between a pre-modern paternalistic moral economy and a modern capitalist market economy. In a moral economy, the market was designed to be transparent: goods sold directly from farmer to consumer at state-specified times, prices, and weights and measures. According to Thompson, the moral economy was challenged and defeated in the eighteenth century by a new model of supply and demand unencumbered by state intervention: ‘The breakthrough of the new political economy of the free market was also the breakdown of the old moral economy of provision.’

My current research for The Politics of the English Grain Trade (1315-1815) project focusses on a key aspect of past food systems, the milling trade. These perspectives bring into question Thompson’s dichotomy between moral economy and free market. Grain was a dietary staple in medieval and early modern England, with diets largely comprised of wheat and rye bread, oatmeal, and malted barley brewed into ale and beer. Everyone from bakers and brewers to individual householders required the services of a mill and, as Thompson recognised, millers were considered ‘servants of the community, working not for a profit but for a fair allowance.’ Mills were communal focal points, but they were also highly regulated and potential sources of conflict. Between 1558 and 1815, many of these disputes were heard in the Court of Exchequer in Westminster, providing insights into past discourses about food systems. Through this research, the project hopes to provide historical perspectives that could inform present and future policy on food security.

“Old Watermill at Caerleon, Monmouthshire (as it stood in 1842).” National Library of Wales. Wikimedia Commons

The present-day discourse surrounding food systems echoes arguments made in past disputes over ‘suit of mill’. Suit of mill was an obligation for the inhabitants of a manor to grind all grain ‘grown, spent, and used’ in their households at the local mill owned by the lord. Suit of mill was neither enforced nor created by general statute law but evolved over centuries and was largely dictated by custom. It was a localised and constantly negotiated tool used to regulate the milling industry and was a principal point of contention amongst the population over its food supply because it forced inhabitants to grind at a particular mill regardless of the price, quality, and timeliness it could provide.

Legal cases over suit of mill were usually instigated by a mill owner against an individual or group believed to be using other mills or building their own ‘rival’ mills. Mills made a profit by taking a toll on the grain brought to them – anywhere between a 16th and a 24th of the wheat that was milled – and then selling it at the market. Whilst this system was in place to allow millers and mill owners to pay the rents on their mills, it was claimed by defendants (often local inhabitants) that millers and owners were abusing monopoly rights by charging ‘excessive toll’ and committing other ‘abuses’ such as exchanging or contaminating customers’ grain.

Defendants in suit of mill disputes, then, were advocating for greater freedom in their food systems. They wanted to be able to grind their grain where they ‘liked best’ or ‘were best used’. Less constraint, they claimed, would also aid the poorest in society, for whom grinding their own small quantities of grain was more economical than buying bread. More mills and greater competition would act as a natural preventative to millers and mill owners inflating prices and abusing their privileges. Today’s discourse can almost be seen as a reversal of this argument. Whilst some commentators are calling for continued trust in price setting by the market, others call for greater intervention to protect consumers and the poor in a market that is perceived as failing.

An ear of wheat, woodcut, 1547. Wellcome Library, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Population growth is another issue common to past and present ideas about food systems. From the seventeenth century onwards, Britain’s population grew uninhibited by widespread famine and despite high mortality from diseases such as plague. Increasing population size, particularly in urban centres, was noted by contemporaries in suit of mill disputes as a factor that negatively impacted the capacity and productivity of mills. Witnesses increasingly claimed that their locality had ‘growne more populous then heretofore’ and as a result the lord’s mill was not ‘able’ or ‘sufficient’ to grind grain for all inhabitants in ‘convenient time’.

Although population growth was identified as a contributing factor, it was never the central argument. Emphasis was instead placed on the underlying political and economic structures that shaped food security. For example, in the case of Cannock mills in Colchester (Essex), the overriding problem was identified as the milling monopoly’s impact on the town’s wider economic system, which rested on twin pillars of cloth and grain in a tight equilibrium. The mill owner alleged that poor clothworkers used rival windmills rather than the customary watermill. In response, the defendants claimed that if the windmills were demolished both the poor and the tradesmen would suffer. The poor would ‘lose their tyme in waiting to have their corne grownd’, when they could be working, and the tradesmen would be unable to process cloth in time to ‘make their markettes’ and therefore be unable to ‘supplie the wants’ of the poor in providing work. Therefore, the monopoly was seen to interfere with a market system dictated by supply and demand.

Similarly, in the 1607 case over mills in the ‘great markett towne’ of Barnsley (Yorkshire), the defendants’ main argument against the supposed milling monopoly was that it interfered with the broader economic and political food system of the North West. Barnsley’s inhabitants grew a significant surplus of grain, which was used in three ways: charitable donations for the poor, reserving for seed, and sale at the local market. A mill monopoly would make all three options impossible as inhabitants would first be required to grind any grain grown in Barnsley into flour at the lord’s mill, making it less transportable, useful, and commercially appealing. Most importantly, the monopoly would impact on regional food security: it would ‘be a greate undoeinge to a great parte of Cheshire and Lancashire and other places on the west syde of Barnsley who much and usually resorte to the markett theire’, and where they ‘often and almost alwaies stand [in] great need’. In short, they argued that supply and demand created an efficient market, and the imposition of a monopoly would prevent this system from functioning properly, particularly in a growing market town.

Arguments over milling came down to the issue of private profit versus public benefit – a common refrain in today’s discourse about food systems. The parallels between past and present discourses suggest that, contrary to Thompson’s argument, moral and market economies are not mutually exclusive, but co-existed before the eighteenth century and still do so today. Additionally, which type of market (paternalistic or free) is the more ‘moral’ option depends on the context: early modern suit of mill litigants often argued that a freer market was more equitable. The main difference between past and present discourse lies in scale, with past disputes defined in local or regional terms, and today’s discourse defined in national or global terms. Whilst factors like population growth are clearly important in discussions of food security, the primary point of contention in both past and present discourses is the political and economic systems that underpin food supply and production.

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